Cultivating the witness is a process similar to improving your golf swing.
When you really have your swing down you are able to just watch the motions of your body move from a deeper place which allows you to focus your attention on more subtle details in the game. Ram Dass explains how to cultivate the witness in golf as well as applying that to your real life in this talk from 1995 at Stanford University.
Playing Golf Without Being the Golfer
The interesting thing about cultivating mindfulness in golf is that what you are cultivating is a part of your mind that is noticing the rest of the game, the rest of life, is noticing everything else that’s going on, is noticing, ‘Now I’m speaking’. The ‘noticer’ is not the same as the ‘speaker’; they’re two different things. The question is whether this is just a random event or whether you cultivate it as a way of being in the world. We often think of the term ‘self-conscious’, but that has a judgmental quality to it. This has no judgment; it’s just noticing how it is. Now, for example, ‘Sweating with anxiety on the first tee ‘cause everybody’s standing around…the foursomes that are waiting for us to shoot, and you know you’re gonna take the driver, and you’re going to ‘top the ball’, you just know it.’
The mind is going through all of its early experiences of judgment and making a fool of yourself, and embarrassment, and all that stuff, and the witness is saying, ‘Really neurotic, isn’t he?’ The witness is just noticing the way it’s all unfolding; it’s noticing the mind doing its ‘trip’; so what I start with is this learning of a skill. ‘Finger here’, ‘move here’, ‘turn here’, ‘get here’, ‘then go through’, and the ball is doing what it’s supposed to do within reason; and now I’m ready to add back into it the witness part of it, because now golf is my spiritual practice.
This has become my method for cultivating the part of my mind that is in the universe, but not trapped by it.
It’s in my personality, but it’s not ‘stuck’ by it; so that I cultivate this witness; just noticing; it’s noticing the depression; it’s noticing excitement; it’s noticing wanting to do good; it’s noticing thinking about how to do good; it’s noticing it all. Now some people say, ‘Well, if you’re witnessing or noticing, how do you have time to do the golf?’ And it looks like at first, in the first stages of this process, that it is a choice; that you’re witnessing and then you’re playing, and then you’re witnessing and then you’re playing, and then you’re witnessing and then you’re playing; but as you cultivate that part of you that is this witness, that is just seeing how it is; it’s not in time, it’s not going anywhere, it’s got nothing to do. As this is cultivated, it takes you into a quality of witness in which it is not competitive with thought; it’s like a meta-game around thought, and you’re just mindful and sitting, watching, and you’re quiet inside, even as the phenomena is going on.
There’s a mystical quote that says, and this is really interesting to golf, “One does nothing, and nothing is left undone”. That comes out of Chinese mysticism. In India, it would be said, perhaps in the Bhagavad Gita, it would be said that ‘the dharmic person, the person who is acting in a harmonious way in the universe is somebody who is not identified with being the actor and not attached to the fruits of the action’. Try that one on for size. Try playing golf without being a golfer; in other words, don’t identify with the action, and play the golf as well as you can, but don’t be attached to how it comes out, because how it comes out is not in your control, no matter how good you get.
– Ram Dass, 8/27/1995, Stanford University